What you need to know about anesthesia

What is anesthesia?

It is pronounced an-ess-thee-sha. It is a medicine that causes a loss of feeling in all or part of your body. It comes in different types.

The best type of anesthesia for you depends on:

  • The type of surgery you are having
  • Your health
  • What your surgeon needs to do his or her work
  • What you want

General anesthesia

This type of anesthesia puts you in a deep sleep. It is not like the normal sleep you have at night.

  • You get the medicine by breathing it in or through a vein.
  • You will not feel anything with this kind of anesthesia.

Local anesthesia

This type of anesthesia numbs just the part of your body where you are having surgery. So, if you are having surgery on your thumb, it only numbs your thumb.

  • You will be awake during surgery.
  • You may also be given other medicines to make you feel relaxed or sleepy (sedation).


Sedation is medicine that makes you relaxed or sleepy.

  • It is often given through a vein.
  • Many people can still follow instructions when sedated.

Regional anesthesia

This type of anesthesia numbs a larger part of your body. During surgery, you will not feel any pain in that area of the body. So, if you are having surgery on your thumb, regional anesthesia will numb your arm.

  • You also may be given sedation.
  • It may be useful for people with chronic pain.

The 3 types of regional anesthesia are:

Medicine is put into your back with a needle. This stops pain and movement. The needle is taken out after the medicine is put in.
Medicine goes into your body through a small tube in your back. The tube is attached to a pump that gives you the amount of medicine you need. The tube is taken out after the medicine is no longer needed to control pain.
Nerve block
Medicine is injected near nerves to control pain during surgery. Sometimes a small tube is placed near the nerve, which is attached to a pump that gives you the amount of medicine you need. The nerve block will stop or lower your pain for a few hours after surgery.

Who will give me anesthesia?

A doctor called an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist who is a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), will be in charge of your anesthesia.

Someone from your health care team will stay with you while you are asleep to make sure your body is working well during and after surgery.

A resident doctor or student nurse anesthetist may be part of your health care team. They are supervised by experienced doctors and CRNAs.

Will I need a blood transfusion?

Most people do not need a blood transfusion during surgery.

If you need blood, it will be given to you.

Will I wake up during surgery?

It is rare to wake up during surgery.

In the operating room, machines help us measure the amount of medicine you are getting and how deeply you are asleep.

What are the risks of anesthesia?

Some surgeries or diseases may put you at a higher risk for complications. Before your surgery, you will have a chance to talk about the risks with your anesthesia health care team.

Minor risks are more common. They are:

  • Feeling sick or vomiting (throwing up) after surgery
  • Having a sore throat, teeth, or lips, or trouble swallowing if you had a breathing tube
  • Feeling pain or having bruises on your arm where the IV was
  • Bruising or redness on your skin or some numbness. This can happen from the pressure of lying down during surgery. Most of the time this does not last after your hospital stay.
  • Having a backache or headache after spinal or epidural anesthesia.

Major risks are very rare. They are:

  • Drug reaction
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Lung problems
  • Bleeding
  • Blindness
  • Nerve damage or paralysis
  • Brain damage
  • Coma or death

Before your surgery, you will talk with your anesthesia health care team. You may:

  • Get a phone call
  • Call in for a video conference
  • Go to the Pre-Surgical Evaluation Clinic at UI Hospitals and Clinics (Elevator F, Level 1). In the clinic, you will:
    • Meet with staff on the anesthesia health care team
    • Give your medical history
    • Learn how to get ready for your surgery
    • Talk about your plan of care

Before your surgery, the anesthesia health care team will:

  • Talk with you about your medicines and allergies
  • Tell you which medicines to take before your surgery
  • Talk with you about stopping or changing the medicines you may take for diabetes, pain, or to thin your blood


Females from age 11 to 50 will be given a urine pregnancy test on the day of surgery. People who are pregnant will decide with the doctor whether to have the surgery or wait.

Eating and drinking before surgery

Our protective reflexes slow down when we are given anesthesia. One protective reflex is to keep stomach contents from going into our airway. Aspiration can happen when stomach contents enter our airway. This is less likely to happen when your stomach is empty. Fasting (not eating or drinking) keeps your stomach empty.

Solid or semi-solid stomach contents may not let your lungs get air. Liquid stomach contents that are acidic may burn your lungs and stop you from getting air. Both types of aspiration may cause brain damage or death. Aspiration can be treated. Most people survive, but treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU) is often needed. Aspiration may lengthen your hospital stay by days to weeks.

People having abdominal (belly) surgery may have special eating and drinking instructions.

Your stomach must be empty for surgery. We do not want food from your stomach to get into your lungs during surgery. Your surgery will be delayed if you do not or cannot follow eating and drinking instructions. 

Learn more about what you can and cannot eat and drink before surgery.

What happens after surgery?

  • Anesthesia medicine is stopped after your surgery.
  • You will wake up in the recovery room.
    • Most people stay there for 1 to 2 hours after surgery.
  • Then you will either go to a hospital room or go home.
  • If you have serious health problems, you may go to an intensive care unit.
  • Your health care team will work with you to control your pain.
    • You will be given information about this.

If you have any questions about your anesthesia, please call:

Our team of caring and well-trained anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists are here to give you the best care. Thank you for letting us take care of you and your family.

Last reviewed: 
April 2021

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